HAMPTON — Driving to football practice one morning, Alonzo Coley instinctively made the right turn onto Ireland Street. Like so many times before.
"I was on autopilot, man" he laughs.
Understandable. But Coley is now the head football coach at Kecoughtan, which is two miles further up Woodland Road. After five years in the blue and gold of the Phoebus Phantoms, four of which were state championship seasons, Coley is wearing the Warriors' green and white.
"Sometimes it's a little weird," said Coley of being so close, yet so far away, from his old stomping grounds. "But I'm enjoying it here. And actually, I inherited a team that was a little better than I thought it was."
As Kecoughtan's third coach in the last four seasons, Coley takes over a program that has seen better days. The Warriors went 6-4 in 2011 for their first winning season since 2005, but that wasn't good enough to make the playoffs — even in this day of an eight-team field in each division.
At Phoebus, Coley was part of an atmosphere that considered any season without a ring a disappointment. And the first assistant he hired was defensive coordinator Greg Narvid, who in 22 years at Phoebus was part of six state championship teams (three under Bill Dee, three under Stan Sexton).
"Not only do they know how to win, they expect to win," senior tight end/safety Will Wright said. "He can show us the things to get over the hump we've been on the last few years."
Through the 1990s, only Hampton was a more consistent winner than Kecoughtan in the Peninsula District. The Warriors made the Eastern Region playoffs — which, in those days, took only four teams per division — five times that decade. They won regional championships in 1996 and '97.
But when Curt Newsome left following the '97 season, the program began a gradual decline. Over the next 14 seasons, the Warriors finished above .500 only four times.
Tommy Austin had three winning seasons and one playoff team in his run from 2001-05. But he left, and the program is under its third different coach since.
Observing from an opponent's perspective the last five years, Coley never understood.
"I always thought they kind of underachieved," he said. "I always thought the parts were there."
When Coley got the job in January, he knew who his first hire would be. Narvid had abruptly left Phoebus before the 2011 season but made it clear he wasn't retiring. Kecoughtan was a good fit. Not only does he know Coley, the school is two miles from his house.
"It was nice having the year off, but I got bored after a while," Narvid said. "I was always planning to get back."
Hiring Narvid, arguably the best defensive coordinator in the state, was a major coup. He isn't some apprentice who needs the head coach to hold his hand every step of the way.
"I have a lot of trust in Greg," Coley said. "That worked out well for us."
With Coley in command and Narvid on board, many are assuming the program will be operated like Phoebus Lite. Coley pauses a few seconds before addressing that.
"Defensively, it'll be very similar to what you see at Phoebus," he said. "In that regard, I think the kids are very much the same. But offensively, the kids are a little bit different, and we'll have to be a little bit of a different animal. We'll have to do some different things (here) because we can't match up like that."
Defensively, Kecoughtan was among the best in the region last season. The problem was on offense, where the Warriors averaged 18.5 points a game — 12.8 if you eliminate wins over Denbigh, Gloucester and Menchville.
Trenton Cannon (1,159 yards, 12 TDs) was the district's No. 2 rusher last season as a junior. But the passing game was non-existent, and the offense became easy to predict.
"We're going to win through defense," Coley said. "But offensively, we're going to be a little more solid. I think with Nick (Carrera at quarterback) coming back and having that experience, he'll be much better. That'll help our offense a lot."
Another must, Coley stresses, is changing how the players think.
"Some of these kids don't know how to win," he said. "Every day, it has to be a learning process. The talent is here. The mentality of getting past certain hurdles is what we need to work on."
Coley learned that first hand. His players want to do the same.
"Our goal isn't just making the playoffs," junior fullback/linebacker Thomas Koufie said. "It's further than the playoffs."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times